Building a thriving furniture business with a hammer and a few rusty nails

Eco Furniture Design’s first employee, Lucky (left), with founder Tameron.

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South African furniture manufacturer Eco Furniture Design recently won the National Skills Development category at the DHL-sponsored 2016 South African Small Business Awards. We found out how this husband-and-wife team built a successful business from their garage.

The story of Cape Town-based Eco Furniture Design started in 2010, when new mother Tameron Haralambous was unable to find a suitable changing station for her baby. This, and witnessing how a well-known building materials retailer threw away useable wood offcuts, sparked the idea for the business.

Haralambous and her husband got permission from the retailer to use the wood, and went about designing and building the changing station. Soon their friends caught a glimpse of their work and started placing orders.

After the product’s popularity became apparent, they started advertising on classifieds website Gumtree. Requests for other items started rolling in and it wasn’t long before they needed extra help and a better working space.

Today, seven years later, the company produces furniture from recycled, reclaimed and alien timber that are sold to families, students, schools, hotels and restaurants throughout Africa and globally. It has a retail store and two factories, providing work for 30 people.

The business’ ethos, according to Haralambous, is simple: remain eco-friendly and hire unskilled workers – training them in the profession of carpentry and woodwork.

“We decided from the start we were going to hire unskilled guys to grow with us,” says Haralambous.

Their first employee, Lucky, is now a factory manager.

From the garage to factory

The jump from making furniture in their garage to operating two factories wasn’t easy. “We basically just had a hammer and a few rusty old nails. We didn’t get any capital, we didn’t get a loan – we literally started from the ground up,” notes Haralambous.

In 2011 Eco Furniture Design – together with its first employee, Lucky – moved to a container in the yard of crane operator. They brought in more workers and purchased some necessary tools to produce furniture from old wooden pallets.

Eventually, when carpentry books and YouTube tutorials weren’t sufficient anymore, Haralambous decided it was time to formalise the team’s training. She discovered Furntech, an incubator and training provider in the furniture and wood products industry, and signed her staff up for three years.

When the incubation period came to an end, the company submitted a grant application to the Department of Trade and Industry. The money they were awarded was used to purchase a factory and additional machinery. By this time the number of staff have grown to 10.

Being different is challenging

The company’s niche is consumers wanting to purchase environmentally- and socially-conscious products.

“We just wanted to be different, we wanted to offer something to the public that was environmentally friendly and where they know they are supporting job creation and the upskilling of people,” says Haralambous.

But being eco-friendly does have its challenges as the company can only use reclaimed and alien wood. “A lot of our competitors are using really nice timbers like oak and teak, which are beautiful timbers, but we’ve decided that we have want to be sustainable, we want to be a company that’s aware of our impact on the environment.”

In terms of competition, foreign imports and large South African furniture retailers are Eco Furniture Design’s biggest contenders. The fact that the company only hires unskilled workers adds to the challenges.

“So we also have that extra obstacle of having to try and train guys up. So it is a fine line between having a profitable business and then also sticking to your ethos,” she says.